Pressured, Assad Offers Charm Campaign

By Ofer Shelah

Published January 09, 2004, issue of January 09, 2004.
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TEL AVIV — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continued his version of a peace offensive this week, publicly offering to give up weapons of mass destruction if Israel agreed to do the same, knowing in advance that it won’t.

Israel’s Prime Minister Sharon replied in kind, sending a message to Assad that if the Syrian leader agrees in advance to restrain Hezbollah and shut down the Damascus offices of Palestinian terrorist groups — which he won’t — Israel would then agree to restart peace negotiations. But only if the talks start “from scratch” and not from the point where they broke off in 2000, as Assad insists.

It was all business as usual for the two hostile neighbors, but for one key change: Syria’s newfound isolation in the wake of the Iraq war, which most analysts here believe has fundamentally changed the regional configuration. With American troops roaming just across his eastern border and voices in Washington indicating that he might be next, Assad is feeling intense pressure. Libya’s dramatic about-face in the last two weeks has only increased the isolation, and the pressure.

That pressure is the reason, analysts agree, for Assad’s recent flurry of conciliatory gestures. He began his campaign with a dramatic offer, in a December 1 interview in the New York Times, to renew peace talks with Israel. Last week he invited a Druze Knesset member from Israel’s ruling Likud party to visit Damascus for talks.

This week Assad made a state visit to Turkey, the first ever by a Syrian president, in what was widely interpreted as an effort to reach out to America’s — and Israel’s — strongest ally in the Muslim world. The Turkish visit had been preceded by smaller gestures, including the handing over in November of 22 suspects in a wave of Turkish terrorist bombings.

Assad’s charm campaign has drawn mostly dismissive reactions from Israeli officialdom. Government leaders from Sharon on down say Assad is merely seeking to use Israel in order to ingratiate himself with the Bush administration.

Underlying the Israeli response is a sense that the new Middle East power balance, by weakening Syria and strengthening Israel, has removed the urgency of making a deal with Syria — particularly on the terms Syria has laid down, which include full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Four previous Israeli prime ministers — Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu and Barak — had accepted the Syrian terms in principle. But with the changed landscape in the region, Sharon sees no need to rush into such a deal.

From Sharon’s point of view, the Syrian border has been quiet for 35 years, and Syria is in no position to heat it up any time soon. Syria’s army is no longer the formidable foe it once was. One senior Israeli army officer, Brigadier General Eival Giladi, stated last week that Israel “could march to Damascus as quickly as the Americans marched to Baghdad.”

This week, however, Israel’s leaders began to hear from citizens who believe this is the time to negotiate, now that Israel is in a position of strength and can draw maximum benefit from creating a so-called “ring of peace” around its borders.

Surprisingly — or perhaps not surprisingly — much of the support for this view comes from the military. The chief of Israeli military intelligence, Major General Aharon Farkash-Ze’evi, told the Cabinet in a briefing this week that he thinks Assad’s peace overtures to Israel are serious. Major General Yitzhak Harel, newly appointed chief of the army’s planning department, said last week in an interview that an agreement with Syria would mark a significant strategic change, from which Israel is bound to gain.

Sharon is considerably more skeptical, at least on the surface. He also has some pressures of his own to consider, especially within his own party. Yisrael Katz, the minister of agriculture, announced last week that a ministerial committee on settlements had adopted a plan to “double the number of Israeli settlers on the Golan,” who currently number about 12,000. Ministry officials later downplayed the plan’s scope, saying it would increase the settler population only by one-third, adding some 900 homes and creating nine new communities.

But Katz, a former Sharon protégé who has since allied himself with Sharon’s chief rival, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, made no secret of the plan’s broader intentions. “One of my goals is also to make sure Assad wakes up every morning to watch a thriving Israeli Golan from his presidential palace,” he told Israel Radio.

Katz’s plan was promptly denounced as mere rhetoric by more senior ministers, who insisted it did not reflect Sharon’s views. But Damascus was quick to jump on his remarks as proof of Israeli intentions to sabotage chances for peace. Syria lodged a formal complaint this week before the U.N. Security Council, calling Israel’s alleged settlement plans “provocative” and “contradicting the goal of peace.”

All of this explains Sharon’s low profile on Syria. After Ze’evi finished telling the Cabinet that military intelligence believes Assad means business, the prime minister snapped: “Did he stop funding and supporting the Hezbollah?” Ze’evi promptly acknowledged that Syria had done no such thing — only to have the prime minister repeat the question, forcing him to repeat his answer. Hours later, in what was widely seen as an attempt to brand Ze’evi’s remarks as politically motivated, aides in Sharon’s office leaked a report to the press stating that unnamed “professional officers” within the intelligence branch don’t see eye to eye with their boss. Their real point was that Ze’evi’s own boss doesn’t agree with him. Ze’evi thinks the time is ripe for a deal. Sharon thinks there’s no rush.

Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel, once opined that “in the Middle East, nothing happens until an Arab leader feels pressure.” He was talking about the late Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, but as recent events show, he might as well have been talking about Assad’s son and heir. Or perhaps, considering the chilly Israeli response to Assad, about Sharon.

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